Thursday, September 03, 2009

The cloud computing standards war

Over the last couple of years, I've consistently talked about the necessity for standards in the cloud computing space and the oncoming war that this will create. This was not some insightful prediction but simply the re-application of old lessons learned from the many industries which have undergone a transformation to a service world.

That standards war is now in full swing.

The principle arguments behind standards comes from componentisation theory (the acceleration of innovation through the use of standardised subsystems) and the need for marketplaces with portability between providers (solving the lack of second sourcing options and competitive pricing pressures). The two main combatants at the infrastructure layer of the stack are shaping up to be Amazon with the EC2 API and VMware with vCloud API.

Much of the debate seems to be focused about how "open" the standards are, however, there's a big gotcha' in this space. Whilst open standards are necessary for portability and the formation of markets, they are not sufficient. What we really need are standards represented through open source reference models, i.e. running code.

The basic considerations are :-

  • A specification can be controlled, influenced and directed more easily than an open source project.
  • A specification can easily be exceeded providing mechanisms of lock-in whilst still retaining compliance to a 'standard'.
  • A specification needs to be implemented and depending upon the size and complexity of the 'standard' this can create significant adoption barriers to having multiple implementations.
  • Open source reference models provide a rapid means of implementing a 'standard' and hence encourage adoption.
  • Open source reference models provide a mechanism for testing the compliance of any proprietary re-implementation.
  • Adoption and becoming de facto are key to winning this war.

So, in the war of standards whilst the vCloud API has sought approval from the DMTF and formed a consortium of providers, the Amazon EC2 API has widespread usage, a thriving ecosystem and multiple open source implementations (Eucalyptus, Nimbus and Open Nebula).

There appears to be a lot of FUD over the intellectual property rights around APIs and a lot of noise over vCloud adoption. You should expect this to heat up over the next few months because these early battles are all about mindshare and will heavily influence the outcome.

However, whilst VMWare has struck boldly it has exposed a possible achilles heel. The only way of currently implementing vCloud is with VMWare technology, there is no open source reference model. If Reuven is right and Amazon does 'open up' the API, then Amazon have a quick footed route to IETF approval (multiple implementations) and can turn the tables on vCloud by labeling it as a "proprietary" only solution.

Of course VMWare could pre-empt this and go for an open source route or even attempt to co-opt the various open source clouds into adopting their standard. I'd be surprised if they weren't already trying to do this.

This space is going to get very interesting, very quickly.